Monday, March 29, 2010

Come Go With Me: Something Like Fate

Lately, I've been getting into romances.  Not because I'm an especially romantic individual--readers who know me personally are cracking up at the understatement of the year right now--but for other reasons.  First, the authors aren't trying to save the world.  I feel like too many books these days are trying to be The Great American Novel.  Yo, authors, not everyone is Harper Lee or Wally Lamb, and that's okay.  Jokes that aren't cynical and edgy and endings that aren't wrist-slittingly depressing are not only cool, but they're welcome.

Second, contrary to the bodice-ripper stereotype, many romances center around intelligent women and the relationships that are important to them: of course, the romantic relationship is the central focus (as the genre dictates), but often family and friends play important parts in the story as well.  What makes these heroines so compelling is that their lives are full--not just with people, but with jobs and passions--even before the protaga-dude steps into town.  I don't know about you, but for me, that's real, and it's enjoyable to read.

Which brings me to this week's Awesome Authors book, Susane Colasanti's Something Like Fate.  Strictly speaking, this could be qualified as YA romance.  The heroine is sensitive and smart, and treasures the people in her life--which includes but is not exclusive to the gorgeous, kind boy--but is faced with complications to balance these relationships.  Sure, I knew the happy ending was coming--which is in fact a comfort--but I was compelled to go along for the ride.  And the characters are good eggs, stuck in situations that may seem insignificant in twenty years, but for right now, are all they've got in the world.

The plot in a nutshell: Lani and Erin are best friends in a small New Jersey town.  Erin's popular, Lani left that crowd a couple years back to do her own thing: she's really big on green living, exploring the concept of fate, and hanging with her closeted pal Blake.  The girls aren't as close as they used to be, but still share a deep bond from a near-tragedy that occurred when they were in grade school.  When Erin declares regulation hottie Jason her new object of affection, Lani obligingly scopes him out--but finds herself falling for Jason as well.  When Lani shares not only a physical attraction but an emotional connection with Jason, what's a good girl to do?

Maybe not the most original plotline in the world, but most writers and readers will argue that there's about five stories in the world anyway--the important part is how you tell them.  One of my biggest beefs with recent YA fiction is that some authors try too hard to be edgy, and it's painfully obvious when it's not coming from a real place.  Something Like Fate keeps it simple, and I like that.  Plus, what's more universal than crushing on someone you're not supposed to?  Or hanging on to a friendship because of shared history?  Way more relatable than lusting after an abstinent vampire, that's for sure.  And while there's a lot to be said for the escapism of fantasy, it's lovely to balance it out with a book that's grounded.  The subplot with Blake was well-done and sadly familiar without veering into cliche.  As always, I love Colasanti's music references: Death Cab forever!  Finally, the cover is purple, my favorite color in the whole world.  What can I say?  I love a pretty cover.

The one issue I did have with Something Like Fate was this: I thought the author was too kind to Jason at times.  I'm not going to give anything away, but I will say that both Lani and Jason make ill-advised decisions, but it's Lani who solely receives the blame.  Granted, this is pretty typical of high school--hell, it's pretty typical of the grown-up world, which is sad.  However, I would have liked a little more self-awareness on Lani and Jason's part.  Jason's not perfect.  I would have liked him anyway, maybe even more, had he realized and owned up to his faulty behavior--and I would have still liked Lani had she called him on it.  He's got a good heart, but even the best guys do make mistakes.

Overall, however, I found Something Like Fate to be the literary equivalent of green jasmine tea with tons of honey.  Calming, comforting, and just the way I like it.

Now, ladies and germs, it's ARMCHAIR CASTING DIRECTOR TIME!

I don't know about y'all, but when I read and write, I like to picture in my head what the characters look like. (Start singing "The Movie in My Mind" from Miss Saigon.  You know you want to!)  Blame my obsession with IMDb or my theatre background, but I always like to think about who would play a character (whether it's written by me or someone else) in the movie.  And when I say "movie," I mean "film cast with the utmost precision and respect for the readers," not "pile of steaming garbage with Shia LaBeouf as Henry Higgins."

In short, there is no game I heart more than armchair casting director.  Brief disclaimer: my choices don't always make sense in terms of age or era.  I often like to think of the younger versions of actors way too old for the characters--if that's because much of Young Hollywood leaves me cold or I'm just strange, I don't know.

Anyway, here's who I was picturing as the main characters in Something Like Fate:

Lani: Zooey Deschanel

She's got the ethereal intelligence combined with the healthy glow that can only come from avoiding soda pop.  Plus, Lani has bangs!

Erin: Arielle Kebbel

Textbook relatable golden girl.  Whether she's Dean's wife on Gilmore Girls or the type A woman scorned in the surprisingly good John Tucker Must Die, Kebbel's a natural beauty.  True, she could rock the fake tan and hair extensions typical to L.A. actresses, but she doesn't need to.

Blake: Jacob Zachar

I always like it when the gay friend isn't a stereotype.  Not only is Zachar adorable, but he can convey real vulnerability and emotion when the role calls for it.  Have you seen Greek?  If not, get thee to Hulu.  (I'm probably prejudiced because he's a local boy.  My crushworthy former coworker was in a band with him.)

Jason: Hunter Parrish

Ohhh yeah.  He's all kinds of dreamy (and he's 23, so it's not too gross for me to say that).  Maybe it's because I associate him with Weeds, but Parrish has a whimsical granola vibe to him that would work great for Jason.  I would totally swoon over this dude in the high school hallway, that's for sure.

(Memo to Nikki: I know I totally used the same Parrish pic as you did on your blog, but it's the cutest one I could find.  :)

My two cents:
We all think of first love as simple, but that's the musings of a nostalgia-heavy generation.  The truth is, love is never simple.  Something Like Fate conveys this with gentle aplomb, making for a relaxing, optimistic read. Good stuff.

Something Like Fate will be released May 4.  Click here to pre-order, and here to read my interview with the book's author, Susane Colasanti!

Liked Awesome Authors Month?  You're in luck--thanks to an unexpected ARC and another excellent writer who said yes to an interview, the read-y/write-y fun will continue for two more weeks.  Stay tuned, y'all!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Awesome Author Interview, Part Deux: Susane Colasanti

In early 2007 (aka The Year Unpro Got Her Groove Back), I was at Borders (aka the Unpro Mothership), and picked up a YA book with a cute cover.  Upon skimming the first few chapters, I was immediately transported back to high school when, like her winning protagonist, I was the braniac girl in love with the witty hipster boy.  Oh, that was fun.  A year later when I started writing fiction of my own, I contacted the book's author and found her to be a lovely person in every way.  Today, she has taken time out of her busy NYC writer's life to stop by my lil ole blog.  The book?  When It Happens.  The author?  Susane Colasanti, who has since published two more novels, Take Me There and Waiting for You.  Her latest, Something Like Fate, is out May 4.  The verdict?  Ms. Colasanti is awesome.  Read on:

You were a high school teacher in New York City for almost ten years. Now that you're no longer teaching full-time, how do you keep up with how teens talk, what they're listening to, and what's on their minds?

It was definitely much easier to keep up with the latest scene when I was surrounded by kids all day. Even though I’m not as immersed in the culture, any slang that survives at least a few years will find its way to me somehow. When I’m writing, I usually only include slang that has been around for a while so people can understand what they’re reading when they pick up my books decades from now. As far as what teens are thinking about, I believe that never really changes. Contemporary issues like sexting and online social networking are new, but the universal issues that connect us all are timeless. Teens will always have the same intrinsic needs and wants, no matter what year it is.

When I was a teacher, I listened to a lot of the same music as my kids. I told myself that I would never be one of those clueless grownups who has no idea what’s on the radio. But these days I mostly listen to NPR, and I’m sad to report that I’ve become out of touch with a lot of the newest music. One of these days, Z100 and I will have an overdue reunion.

Your novels have a variety of settings: Manhattan, suburban New Jersey, a Connecticut river town. How do you decide where to place each story?

When I start writing a new book, the setting is a very important element for me. I like using the physical environment to enhance the story as much as possible, almost as if the setting is its own character. That was especially the case for my second book, Take Me There, which mostly takes place in my own Manhattan neighborhood. I wanted to share the energy and intensity of New York City with my readers. Since the story involves several heavy issues, a frenetic city setting was perfect for that book. When It Happens was my first book, so it made sense for the story to take place near where I grew up. An author’s first book usually seems to be the most autobiographical one. I’m a huge fan of Dawson’s Creek and wanted to capture the magical element of Capeside, Massachusetts in Waiting for You. That was my inspiration for setting the book on the water. And I think it worked – some readers have commented that the cover reminds them of Dawson’s Creek! It’s an interesting example of how one type of creativity can inspire another.

In Waiting for You, your narrator, Marisa, is an avid John Mayer fan, and you are in real life as well. What do you think about his recent controversial Playboy interview? Has his public persona affected how you listen to his music? Why or why not?

As a hardcore John Mayer fan, I made sure to read the full Playboy interview. Most of the people who’ve been snarking on what he said didn’t even read the interview and don’t know his music at all. Perhaps if those people were more informed, they wouldn’t be so angry.

John’s intentions were not malicious in any way. He just doesn’t possess a verbal filter that would allow him to censor the graphic nature of his responses. He also commented that he feels the need to be outrageously shocking in interviews, as if he’s trying to live up to the public’s expectations of how a rock star should present himself. To what degree public figures should take on a persona is always an interesting debate. However, I’m not going to stop believing that his music is true just because he feels the need to be sensational in some interviews. If his music didn’t reflect his soul, there’s no way he’d even think to incorporate the lyrics he does. John Mayer’s music has been a major part of my world for years. The most life-altering experiences I’ve ever had are emulated in his music. He sings my life. Nothing can change that.

What's your writing process like? Do you adhere to any particular routines?

Since I work at home, routines are essential. It's scarily possible to get sucked into the online realm for hours before you even realize what just happened. Also, I’m an organization freak – establishing routines is part of my innate tendency to organize everything. A typical morning goes like this: get up when it’s light out (but not insanely early)*, limited online time, gym (if I’m not being lazy, which I usually am). Afternoons are when I write because I’ve never been a morning person. Ever since I was a teen, I’ve always felt the most productive and energized at night. If I’m working on a new book, I write for about five hours, five days a week. If I’m on deadline, I can easily work a 12- to 14-hour day. Wednesdays and Saturdays are my days off for two reasons: I don’t need two days off in a row and doing errands on weekdays rocks because there are no lines.

*Related note: School starts way too early. There’s no need for this. Kids aren’t going home to do farm chores anymore. It’s time for schools to join this century. No one should have to get up when it’s still dark out. That is just depressing.

Your characters have very definitive tastes in music: the Cure and R.E.M. are mentioned many times. What appeals to you about those bands, and what other musicians inspire your writing?

When I was a senior in high school, things finally started happening. I’m from the middle of nowhere New Jersey where nothing ever happened. But then one day they did. And the music I began listening to at the time was The Cure and R.E.M. Those groups will always be intrinsically connected to that intense time in my life. Whenever I want to remember those emotions and experiences, I play that music and everything about being 17 comes rushing back. Their songs have the capacity to heal your soul. Some people say that The Cure is really depressing, but I find them reassuring. Like no matter how bad your life gets, at some point it can only get better, and there are other people out there who feel your pain. That was good for me to know back then.

For inspiration, I mostly rely on the same music I listened to as a teen. Paul Simon, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, and Sting all have a very Zen, contemplative vibe that helps me find the right words. I’m also into more recent stuff by John Mayer, Death Cab and Coldplay.

Both you and your characters are big advocates of inner peace and strength. How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?

Finding balance is something we all struggle with. It was pretty much impossible to attain any kind of balance when I was teaching. Things are easier now that I work at home. I’m able to structure my day to include enough work and play time. It’s also really important to get enough sleep, which is something I can finally do. When I’m on deadline, I work long days and don’t really have any free time. But on a typical day, I’m able to get my work done and still have time for funtivities.

More and more adults are reading YA fiction, and the majority of YA authors are way out of high school. Any advice for grown-ups who want to write for teens?

The best YA novels are written by grownups who totally remember what it’s like to be a teen. Although there are tons of YA novels that outshine my own, existing in the teen world is just how I live. My internal age is 16. I know that no matter how old I am chronologically, I will always be 16 spiritually. Connecting with that time is my natural state of being.

My advice for aspiring grownup writers is to know what you’re writing. If your writing is true, your characters will feel real. I’ve read some YA books where it seems like the author is struggling to sound younger or trying too hard with their dialogue. As long as you’re in touch with the essence of how you felt as a teen, your writing will be true. If you’re out of touch, find a way to reconnect. Spending time with kids is the best way to achieve this. If that’s not possible, then try the music, movies, shows and books that speak to you the most. Creativity sparks creativity. Our ideas are the collection of everything we’ve ever experienced. The more you immerse yourself in the teen world, whether it’s the 2010 world or the one you survived back in the day, the more authentic your writing will feel.

Who are your favorite authors (YA and otherwise)? What are you reading right now?

My favorite YA author is Laurie Halse Anderson. Every book she’s written is absolutely phenomenal. Some of my other faves are Blake Nelson, Rachel Vail, and E. Lockhart. Recently, I blurbed the incredible debut YA novel The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I also really enjoyed Looks by Madeleine George and I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak. And I have to give a shout-out to S.E. Hinton because The Outsiders was the book that inspired me to write my own.

I’m a huge Jodi Picoult fan, so right now I’m reading My Sister’s Keeper. I wanted to see the movie before reading the book because it’s helping me visualize the scenes in richer detail. My two favorite books by Jodi are The Pact and Nineteen Minutes. I mentioned both of these books in Waiting for You, then sent her a copy. It was my way of thanking her for making the world a better place. Other adult novelists I love are Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby, Garrison Keillor, Tom Perrotta, and Anne Tyler.

You're very communicative with your readers, through your blog, Facebook, Twitter and email, plus you have done in-person appearances. What has been your craziest fan encounter?

My readers are why I write, so communicating with them is a priority. I actually can’t remember any crazy fan encounters. My readers tend to be very generous, sensitive, kind people. I’m a lucky girl!

I'm a huge High Fidelity fan, so I ask all my interviewees: what are your desert island, all-time, top 5 favorite movies?

Garden State, The Good Girl, Office Space, Election, and The Station Agent. High Fidelity would probably make it into my top ten.

Can't get enough Susane?  Check out these links for more!


And stay tuned for next week, when I review her latest, Something Like Fate!  Same Unpro time, same Unpro channel.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Doin' It Well: An Experienced Mistress

Like being a virgin all over again.

That's how I felt as I prepared to dive into my ARC of author Bryn Donovan's debut romance, An Experienced Mistress.  Granted, I wasn't totally prejudiced--after all, it was I who'd sought out the advance copy (which Bryn so kindly provided in e-format).  Thanks in large part to Lauren Weisberger's novel Everyone Worth Knowing (which I find the least painful of her work), I know that the romance genre gets a lot more crap than it deserves.  Romances aren't just about bodice-ripping, y'all: the good ones are well, very very good, and are both read and written by intelligent women.  I'm not even talking about Danielle Steele (ugh), but the little trade paperbacks that always pique my curiosity at Borders but I'm always kind of afraid to go near. Which, if the comments in this Jezebel post are to be believed, is pretty silly of me.

Still, as I sat down after a long weekend day at work with my ARC, I had some reservations.  Not about the writing style: if Bryn's blog was any indication, the writing would be great.  I just worried I wouldn't be able to get into it--I'm not much for historical, well, anything, and . . . um, sex scenes.  I fretted that the repressed Catholic schoolgirl in me (who like a plaid-clad Tourette's sufferer, tends to pop out when I least want her to) would blush and giggle at words such as "nipple."  (Mature, I know.)  Also, it's a tricky thing reviewing a book written by someone you consider a friend--I want to help her sell more copies, but I want to be fair as well.

Warning to my mother: don't read this next sentence.

As it happened, my first foray into the world of romance novels was much like sex: where you worry and wait and plan and it's a little weird at first but if you stick with it, can be extremely enjoyable.

Mom, you can start reading again.

Because once I swallowed (heh) my fear of romances, I enjoyed the hell out of An Experienced Mistress.

Set in post-Crimean War London, An Experienced Mistress follows Will, a former soldier who comes home to find his fiancee married to another man, and Genevieve, a smart and independent bohemian who is having trouble selling her art because--gasp!--she's a WOMAN and LADIES do not paint naked people!

Basically, Will is a nice guy who hasn't had sex in two years and through a misunderstanding (that doesn't feel Three's Company-esque at all) comes to believe that Genevieve is a courtesan.  He propositions Gen, who eventually figures out what he's really asking for--she at first thinks he's requesting art lessons--but decides just to go with it, as a) she could use the extra money, and b) though she's really not experienced in "the art of love," she's mad attracted to Will and figures she can take it slow with him and have some fun.  Naturally, what starts as a business transaction gets way complicated when Will and Genevieve develop physical AND emotional feelings for one another, and wackiness ensues.

You guys, this book is so fun.  I wish more fiction (and TV and films) had characters like Genevieve.  She's tough, witty and doesn't take crap from men.  She is a good friend to her fellow painter pal Ruth (what, women can be FRIENDS and not always fighting over a dude?  Color me shocked!), and has a supportive peer group of artists, including a guy who is probably gay.  (He's old and has a male roommate, so . . . yeah.)  Her dad is a liberal activist who's currently in the States working with abolitionists.

It hasn't been all perfect for Genevieve, however: she lost her virginity to a jerk, when she wasn't married, and people found out and gossiped about it.  And she questions the idea of being a paid escort, as most sane women would.  That said, it's fun to read about Genevieve growing into her relationship with Will and her confidence in her own art.

And her sexuality, of course.

This summer, I penned my first sex scene and learned firsthand that writing about sex is really, really hard (pun intended because I'm twelve, sorry).  Even if you're not snorting or flushing at every other word (again, I'm twelve), sex is . . . weird.  Body parts are anywhere and everywhere and clothes are off and it's intensely personal.  At the same time, sex is universal and it's the writer's job to make the reader identify with the characters' experience (good or bad) without feeling like a voyeur.

Unfortunately, the idea of women having orgasms is still woefully underrepresented in contemporary fiction. (Don't even get me started on TV and movies.)  Which is why An Experienced Mistress was so refreshing, and partly why I've started seeking out more romances (suggestions are welcome in the comments!  Also, Laura Kinsale's Lessons in French FTW!).  Genevieve enjoys herself many, many times--hell, Will even comes prepared so she won't "conceive."  What a guy (and I mean that, considering there were no Walgreens in nineteenth-century Britain).  And these scenes are so beautifully and clearly written, that after a while I stopped feeling embarrassed and started feeling something else entirely.

It ain't just the sex, either, but the lover.  As well as outta sight intimate times, Genevieve and Will share a genuine intellectual connection.  Remember that women's brains and accomplishments were grossly under-appreciated in 1855.  Will not only recognizes that Genevieve can match him wit for wit, but he genuinely admires and encourages her artistic talent.  Yet their relationship is not the type of ooey-gooey shit that makes me want to stick my finger down my throat and go laugh at the smug dorks on this site.

My two cents?  When An Experienced Mistress is released this June, go buy it.  If your bookstore doesn't have it, order it or hit up Amazon.  The publishing industry's at a crossroads and selling books is a tough business for an author.  Why not support a woman who has the chops?

To read my interview with Bryn, click here!

Next week, I journey to the YA world and interview author Susane Colasanti.  Stay tuned!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Awesome Author Interview: Bryn Donovan

This week, I celebrate Awesome Authors Month with . . . my first interview with a real, live published author!  (I'm excited too.)

I first met this talented writer via a mixture of, Twitter, and this very blog.  Her first novel, the historical romance An Experienced Mistress, will be published by Wild Rose Press in June.  (I am totally jealous, but also very happy for her.)  She also has her own witty and warm writing blog, where she actually talks back to the commenters (which always gets points in my book).

Please give a warm Unpro welcome to a frequent commenter (drumroll) . . . Bryn Donovan!

How did you start writing?

I always liked to! In fourth grade I wrote a forty-something-page story. It was about a girl in fourth grade.

What led you to romance/genre fiction?

Ever since I was a kid, I read sci-fi and fantasy, but I had all those usual preconceived notions about the romance genre…I expected the writing to be bad and the heroines to be dumb. I got the idea to try writing a romance because they’re really popular, so I started reading them…and it turned out I really loved them. So many modern romance heroines are terrific—I wish we had more interesting female characters like them in movies and TV.

What makes a good romance novel? In the same vein, what makes a good love/sex scene?

As a reader, I really want some scenes that are so emotional, I have to go back to them again and again. I like the hero and heroine to be independent, imperfect, and capable of real selflessness. And yeah, I want good sex scenes! I think the best ones have a lot of sensory details…appealing to three or four or all five senses. Good scenes describe how the characters are feeling emotionally as well as physically. Each one should reveal something new about the characters or the relationship.

Describe your writing process. Do you adhere to any particular routines?

I have the basic story plotted out before I start, although it does morph and change as I write it. I work anywhere between three and six nights a week, for a few hours at a time. I don’t rush too much; for me, that just means more re-writing later.

I’ve realized that at least once in the process, I’m going to feel like the story is just complete, irredeemable crap. Now I know that feeling is coming and I hopefully can just push through it the next time.

Sometimes the prospect of revising can overwhelm me, so I break it down by elements. On one pass, I’ll make sure I’m happy with the point of view choices; on the next, I’ll make sure it’s sexy enough, or has enough humor, and so on.

Tell us about An Experienced Mistress: what inspired you to write it, how you got it published, and anything else you want to add!

I read a lot of random history books. One morning after I’d been reading about the Crimean War, I imagined this Crimean War vet waking up in his bed and thinking how amazing it felt to be warm after freezing half to death overseas, so that was the start of my hero.

A little while later I got the idea of a relatively sexually inexperienced woman pretending to be experienced. I’ve always loved pre-Raphaelite art, and I know a little about how figurative painters work because I modeled for several in college, so I made my heroine a pre-Raphaelite painter. Of course in Victorian England, it was almost as transgressive for a woman to be an artist as it was for her to be a mistress.

I just submitted three chapters and a synopsis directly to publishers, and a few people asked me to send the full manuscript. One morning I got an email from the editor at The Wild Rose Press saying they were publishing my book and they’d send me the contract. It was awesome!

What inspires your writing? Anything in particular (authors, musicians, etc.) you revisit for inspiration?

It depends on the project. Rereading Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit and Nicholas Nickleby helped me with An Experienced Mistress. Those books are sweet and funny, and they helped me get that Victorian England period feel. I’d never read Stephen King’s The Shining or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House before writing a haunted house romance, and they were both great inspiration.

I always make a playlist for each story. For An Experienced Mistress it was a lot of Chopin and Beethoven, for the haunted house story it was very goth, and the playlist for my new project rocks pretty hard.

You have a day job writing greeting cards for Hallmark, plus a significant other. How do you balance writing, work and life?

It helps that I don’t try to be perfect in every area of my life—for instance, I don’t cook, and the house is a little messy. My significant other helps a lot with my writing! He’s a writer, too, and a great editor for me. He can read a synopsis and zero in on a weakness in the plot. And he doesn’t complain when I lock myself away for hours.

What are you working on now? Any details you're comfortable sharing?

Oh yes! I have an agent now who’s shopping around the haunted house romance, and I’m working on a new, more action-filled paranormal romance that I’m envisioning as the first of a series. This one takes place in Tucson and the surrounding desert. I lived there for a few years, and I think that part of the country is very magical and surreal. I have a couple of ideas for historicals on the back burner, too.

Who are some of your favorite authors and why? What are you reading right now?

I suck at picking favorites, so…I’ll just answer the second question! I just started the Ravishing in Red, the first book in Madeline Hunter’s new Regency series. Hunter wrote the first historical romance I read, and I still love her…she gave such a smart, honest, and inspiring talk at the 2009 RWA Conference, too. I’ve also been devouring the historical m/m romances Running Press is putting out. I read both of the Alex Beecroft “Age of Sail” titles, and now I’m in the middle of Tangled Web by Lee Rowan.

Any advice for aspiring novelists?

Don’t assume you’ll just naturally know how to write a novel. Read some books on story and character development, and maybe go to a writing conference with seminars on craft.

Plot before you write. It’s a pain in the butt, but if you don’t do it, revisions will be an even bigger pain.

I wish someone had told me all that stuff. But if someone had, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. I tend to learn the hard way.

I ask all of my interviewees this question: what are your desert island, all-time, top 5 favorite movies?

Hahaha, I have to pick favorites after all! That’s OK, movies are easier. I’ll say:

LOTR: Return of the King
The Princess Bride
Shakespeare in Love
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This was fun! Great questions. Thanks for having me on your blog!

You're welcome.  :)

Stay tuned for next week, when I (a romance-novel neophyte) review Bryn's debut novel, An Experienced Mistress!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Culture Shock: My Fair Lazy

In honor of Women's History Month, and because many of my readers are also writers, I hereby declare March 2010 to be Awesome Authors Month on The Unprofessional Critic!  Stay tuned all month for fabulous book reviews, author interviews and a good time to be had by all!

In early 2007, I was a bit out of sorts. Between careers, temping, not really sure about my purpose in life. Pretty typical quarterlife crisis. I wasn't unhappy--Bob and I were sharing a spacious apartment, and I was living back in Chicago after being away for four years. Just unfocused.

Then I went to a book signing for author Stacey Ballis (who I recommend you check out immediately--her writing is both funny and sensual, and her heroines are sassy and empowered). I was one of the first people there, and totally geeked out when I met Stacey before the reading. (I think she might have been a little afraid of me--sorry Stacey! I was just really excited to meet you, and pleased you were so gracious. :)

It was then that I overheard a bookseller conversing with a woman seated behind me. She (the woman, not the bookseller) had great hair, extremely well-applied makeup and if my eavesdropping was correct, a book of her own. I wanted to introduce myself, but was unsure how. Until I saw those familiar C's that make my heart leap.

I turned around. "Hi, I love your Coach bag!"

"Thanks! I love it too, even though I'll probably be paying for it for five years."

We jumped into a conversation that led her to introduce me to ANOTHER author I loved who just happened to be sitting there: Laura Caldwell. (Must-read suspense novels, I tell ya. And I don't even normally like that genre.) It was then that I asked this lovely loud lady with the great bag, what she had written. She told me--Bitter is the New Black--with a smiling command: "Go buy it!" I did, dove in later over an omelet and fries (I'd read Stacey's new book prior to the signing), laughed my ass off, and dug this friendly broad even more.

This is how I met Jen Lancaster.


A couple of months later, Jen's second book, Bright Lights, Big Ass, was released and she had a signing at the Michigan Avenue Borders. After reading a selection, Jen started talking about the book and answering questions. Mid-sentence, she spotted me and said, "Hi, Unpro!" She then talked about temping (which I had told her I was doing), and said she never realized how many temps had master's degrees. She then looked straight at me and said, "Or law degrees." Aw.

After the signing, Jen invited the audience out for drinks. This is how I ended up at Gibson's with Jen, her husband Fletch, and one other woman, blathering about my career woes over martinis and burgers and slurring how I was going to be a MESS answering phones in the morning at my latest temp assignment.

Since then, Jen has published two more books, Such a Pretty Fat and Pretty in PlaidHer events and signings are now PACKED, and I tell everyone who will listen that I got drunk with her. That said, I'm fully aware she has a bazillion fans and I was but a martini-swilling blip on her radar.

I never told her that she inspired me to write. That meeting her, Stacey and Laura in the same night--three funny, friendly and creative ladies who lived in Chicago just like me!--had spurred me to start scribbling down stuff of my own. Of course, I'm nowhere near their levels of success, but I like to think that someday I could join their ranks. On that March night in 2007, something inside me woke up and I started writing. I haven't stopped since, and I partly have Jen to thank for that.

So last month, I'm at the Book Cellar (a Chicago TREASURE for the sheer fact that it has both books and wine! Nerd-vana!) for a signing/Q&A with the hilarious Caprice Crane (again, read her stuff like yesterday). Jen is a friend of Caprice's--in fact, we'd bonded over her books while throwing back drinks almost three years ago. After the signing, I debated with my friend Nina whether to approach Jen. I mean, it had been three years, right? Granted, I did say hello at Jen's signing in 2008, but her 2009 event was mobbed and I had to go to work the next day so I'd headed home after the Q&A.

Nina convinced me to go for it, and I waited patiently for Jen to finish the conversation she was having with the woman standing in front of me.

Finally, the woman stepped away and I took a deep breath. "Jen? Hey, I'm--"

"UNPRO!" she screamed, hugging me and poking her husband. "Fletch! Fletch! FLETCH! It's Unpro! Unpro from Gibson's in 2007!" She then proceeded to grill me about what I was doing now, recounting details that I'd spilled after ingesting at least two whiskey and Cokes and one extra-strong dirty martini. In other words, a New York Times-bestelling author remembered stuff I'd told her three years ago in a loud bar when we were both a bit tipsy.

We ended up talking for 20 minutes.

If anyone out there is or becomes a well-known writer, keep my story in mind.

Because THIS is how you get and keep your fans.

Anyway, when I asked about advance review copies for Jen's new book, My Fair Lazy, she told me to email her publicist. Which I did, and that's what I'll be reviewing for this, the first Monday of Awesome Authors Month.

Let's do this!


My Fair Lazy chronicles the attemps of Jen, an admitted reality-TV and junk-food addict, to become cultured. With the help of her friend Stacey Ballis, and with husband Fletch along for the ride, Jen seeks out the most highbrow in theatre, literature, food, and much more. But she's still Jen, with a writing style heavy on hilarious footnotes and a propensity for John Hughes movies: one particularly hilarious scene has her betting a guy at a fancy party that all of the women in the room will know who Jake Ryan is. As someone whose entire family can recite Sixteen Candles word for word (I'm totally not joking), I really appreciated this anecdote.

What I like best about Jen's writing is its relatability--she's REAL, and not in the publicist-staged "Stars, They're Just Like Us!" way. At one point, Jen lists all the reality shows she watches. In fact, she thanks reality show contestants in her acknowledgments. And oh, does she embarrass herself. In the course of the book, Jen freaks out over Carla Gugino's wig at a cast party for the Goodman Theatre's Desire Under the Elms, drinks way too much wine at a business dinner and ends up ranting about Adam Lambert's squealy version of "Ring of Fire" (I don't even watch Idol, and even I have to say: Word, Jen. WOOOOOOORD), and mistakenly buys hundreds of dollars' worth of tea because she doesn't know the Chinese word for "no." Not to mention the Jake Ryan incident.

All of this is related in a style so conversational, the reader feels like they're chatting with Jen over white wine and the fancy cheese she's just learned to like. As someone who's hung out with her (oh, you better BELIEVE this comes up in conversation more than I'd like to admit), I can attest that Jen writes the way she talks. And I'm fully aware that not everyone appreciates this voice: Jen's got the kind of personality you either love or hate, and she knows it. I've never come across a lukewarm reaction to her books--it's one extreme or the other. I'm in the "fangirl" extreme, in case you couldn't already tell.

So she may not be your cup of tea. But if you haven't already, give Jen Lancaster's writing a try. Anyone who peppers stories of Hamptons parties and five-course molecular gastronomy meals with wisecracks about Survivor and Twitter can't be all bad, right? Oh, and did I mention that she is devoted to her pets (cats she's had since college, two pit bulls she adopted in the throes of unemployment, and new to this book, a trio of crazy kittens)? As a woman who's way too obsessed with her cat, Jen's stupid pet tricks give her a few more points in my book. And when it comes to books, My Fair Lazy is a damn fun one. Anyone who tries to reconcile their love of ballet with their affinity for RuPaul's Drag Race (*cough* me *cough*) will both relate and appreciate.

My Fair Lazy will be released May 4. Click here to pre-order, here to read a fun recent announcement from Jen, and here to win an advance copy all your own!

Next week on the 'pro: Awesome Authors Month continues with an interview with an up-and-coming author who likes to visit this blog. Stay tuned!